Special classes fight
Oldham school tries
As North Oldham High School senior Tyler Napier peered over
yellow crime-scene tape, he didn't expect to see another student
face down on the floor in Room 182, covered in what appeared to be
"Oh my God," Tyler said. "There's a person."
Tyler and his classmates signed up to take a weeklong forensics
class, but they didn't know how hands-on it would get. The class
started with a simulated crime and a plot that included a bludgeoned
corpse, a pair of teenage lovers and an alleged statutory rape.
Welcome to CSI: Goshen, one of 18 special classes offered for the
first time at North Oldham High to keep juniors and seniors
interested in learning during the last two weeks of school.
The project, dubbed "May term," is part of an effort to improve
high school education, which is under fire from educators across the
nation for failing to prepare students for college. Organizers also
hope to improve attendance -- especially among seniors -- during the
waning days of classes.
If all goes well, some May term courses, or elements of them,
could be offered in regular classes throughout the school year.
As part of May term, some students are watching movies, then
comparing Hollywood's depictions of psychological disorders and
historical events in the films with what they've learned in class.
Others are using the concept of buoyancy to build a cardboard boat
sturdy enough to race on a lake. Still another group took a 10-day
trip to England and Scotland to study areas of the world that
inspired classic writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens
and Sir Walter Scott.
One of the most popular choices has been ballroom dancing, which
attracted 64 students, most of whom are boys. More than 70 students
have designed their own projects -- one student is shadowing a
Realtor for a week, while another plans to work in a mechanic
"What's so compelling about the potential of May term is that it
turns those last two or three weeks into something of a rigorous,
enjoyable and culminating learning experience," said former North
Oldham High principal Terry Brooks, who helped create the program
and is now executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
While Kentucky and Indiana educators interviewed said May term
sounds like a good idea, few -- if any -- schools in either state
offer such a schedule.
Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said she
knows of no other schools with a similar program.
Mark Shoup, a spokesman for the Indiana State Teachers
Association in Indianapolis, said the intense focus on meeting state
and national academic standards leaves little time for such
"It's not going to happen" in many Indiana public schools because
they face sanctions if their students don't meet state and national
performance standards, Shoup said.
Lauren Roberts, a spokeswoman for Jefferson County Public Schools
in Kentucky, said she wants to know how a school could fit special
classes into an already packed school calendar.
At North Oldham High, nearly all of the school's 325 juniors and
seniors are taking May term classes. Administrators gave students
the option to remain in their regular classes, especially for those
who needed to make up assignments or get remedial help. About five
students took the option.
Science teacher Brennon Sapp, who designed much of May term, said
North Oldham made room for it by changing its grading periods from
four nine-week quarters to four eight-week quarters. That left four
weeks. Two of them were reserved for students to take finals,
Advanced Placement exams and state and national accountability
tests; the other two weeks were for May term.
Juniors and seniors spend the entire school day in May term
classes. They could register for up to four courses in the two-week
period, depending on whether the class was designed for a half day
or full day.
Social studies teacher David Green, who helped design May term,
said its genesis was a discussion with juniors last year about where
high schools were going wrong. The students pointed out the last few
weeks of school, when "senioritis" takes its firmest hold.
Senior Ashley Newbern said she's got a bad case of senioritis,
but May term "kind of helps."
"I'm not stressed, and I'm not feeling rebellious or not wanting
to do work," she said.
Ashley said May term offered her a chance to try new things,
including yoga, aerobics and college-prep cooking -- a class on
preparing food in a dorm room.
Brian Sterrett, a junior, and some of his buddies signed up for
ballroom dancing. "About five of us guys wanted to take it to see
what it was like," he said.
Sue Condict said May term gave her son Joey, a senior, a reason
to keep coming to school.
"Why not show up?" Condict said. "It's fun.
"The other alternative is that they're still sitting in that
structured classroom environment, when mentally they're excited and
distracted and ready to move on."
Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University,
said anything that can shake up senior year is worth it.
The goal of senior year should be to help students be ready to
succeed in college, not merely to help them get accepted, said
Kirst, who researches school-reform efforts.
"It needs to be made more challenging, in terms of getting them
(students) into … things they're interested in," he said.
North Oldham High teachers got the idea for May term from
colleges that use a similar approach -- Lexington's Transylvania
University is one of them.
May term is "very popular" among Transylvania students because
they take subjects they're interested in and explore them
exclusively for the four-week term, without having to worry about
other classes, said spokeswoman Sarah Emmons. Anthropology students
go on digs. An international accounting and taxation class studies
the equine industry in Ireland. Professors of history and religion
take their classes to Turkey and Greece to study the Roman Empire
and the life of the Apostle Paul.
"But I've never heard of a high school doing it," Emmons said,
adding it seems to be a good idea.
The May term buzz around North Oldham has been so positive,
teachers have used it as a motivator. For example, juniors are
promised that if their CATS scores come back high this fall, they'll
get first dibs on next year's May-term offerings.
Judging from students' reaction, CSI: Goshen didn't disappoint.
The class came complete with a fictional autopsy report,
surveillance videotape and evidence, including fingerprints, hair
and blood spatter.
Students decided how to use the information to solve the case,
and sometimes their methods surprised Sapp, who helps teach the
class. For example, one team issued an Amber Alert to locate two
fictitious juveniles wanted for questioning.
"The interactions, expressions and reactions of my students were
so authentic and exciting, I had to step out in the hall as I
exploded in laughter," Sapp said.
Senior Mae Marks, who played murder victim "Jill Simms," had to
lie motionless while students scanned her for evidence. "I'm lovin'
this May term," Mae exclaimed, even if it did mean being dead for
most of the day.
Staff writer Dick Kaukas contributed to this story.